Talk of Airstrikes Doesn't Worry Bosnian Serbs

UN ground troops would be in danger, Serbs say. SAME OLD NATO THREATS?

IT may be NATO's toughest talk yet, but few people here put much stock in the Atlantic alliance's latest threat to launch airstrikes against Bosnian Serb forces.

Western diplomats and United Nations officials are deeply skeptical that this NATO warning will go any further than those that were made in the past and, like numerous UN resolutions on Bosnia, never carried through.

``It's just saber rattling,'' a UN official says of the threat made at the close Tuesday of the annual NATO summit.

Some UN officials also express deep reservations over the practicality of airstrikes. They say that such attacks would be unlikely to be effective and that they would place in greater danger the shaky UN relief operation on which hundreds of thousands of people depend.

For its part, the Bosnian Serb leadership has dismissed the NATO threat, apparently secure in the open opposition to airstrikes by UN Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali, whose go-ahead would be needed, and the emptiness of previous Western warnings.

The Bosnian Serb information service, SRNA, contemptuously describes the NATO statement as a ``storm in a tea cup.'' It asserts there will never be airstrikes as long as UN troops in Bosnia are exposed to potential retaliation.

Nikola Koljevic, the ``vice president'' of the self-declared state for which the Bosnian Serbs ignited the war, also issued a veiled warning over the safety of the 8,000 UN Protection Force soldiers. NATO, he said by telephone from the Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale, ``is creating a negative and psychological climate against the foreign forces and the foreign presence.''

He says the threat merely represents new Western ``pressure'' on the Bosnian Serbs to make additional territorial concessions to the Muslim Slav-led Bosnian government at the next round of Geneva peace talks opening Jan. 18.

Among other things, NATO says airstrikes may be used to support the rotation out of the besieged eastern Muslim Slav enclave of Srebrenica of some 150 Canadian UN troops, whose replacement by Dutch soldiers has been blocked for months by the Bosnian Serbs.

Mr. Koljevic says there is a good chance the rotation will be allowed to proceed shortly. But he repeats a refusal to allow UN aid flights to use the airport in the northeastern industrial city of Tuzla, the largest Bosnian government stronghold outside of Sarajevo and one of six UN-decreed safe havens.

``There is a danger the airport can be used by the Muslims for smuggling weapons,'' Koljevic claims.

Bosnian Serb leaders have kept the airport closed with threats of artillery bombardments.

The airport's opening, UN officials say, is vital to alleviating the plight of the enclave's 360,000 people, many of them refugees uprooted by Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing.

Food and medicine shortages in Tuzla are growing because of Bosnian Serb harassment of UN aid convoys on two supply routes and Muslim Slav-Croat fighting in central Bosnia that has shut down a major road from the Croatian coast, UN officials say.

In December, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was able to deliver by trucks only 30 percent of the enclave's food needs, says UNHCR spokeswoman Lyndall Sachs.

Airstrikes, meanwhile, would do little to help the 43,000 Muslim Slavs, the vast majority of them refugees, trapped in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces almost since the beginning of the war.

While the Bosnian Serbs have permitted food and medicines into the shell-battered enclave, they have impeded UNHCR efforts to build additional housing to ease desperate overcrowding in the town, which had a prewar population of 8,000. The Bosnian Serbs have also blocked the restoration of electricity and water supplies.

Mr. Sachs says there has been ``a major deterioration in the psychological welfare'' of people in Srebrenica in recent months, with UN workers noting ``a dramatic increase in mental illness.''

The mysterious deaths of three babies since mid-December has led to suspicions of ``infanticide'' by distraught mothers, while doctors now perform up to three abortions daily, Sachs says.

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